Body Painting Tips and Techniques

[Photo of male model being bodypainted to appear as a painting in the style of Mondrian, during a charity art benefit in Seattle, 4/30/99]    Anyone who attempts body painting quickly discovers the lack of useful information and dearth of practical materials to accomplish successful body paintings. This situation has improved in recent years. It is becoming easier to find good paints to work with.
        Most traditional makeup techniques are incredibly messy and time consuming.  It's not unusual to hear of a full body painting taking 10 to 12 hours.  Eventually I learned of some better techniques that get the job done with a minimum of mess and time.


    Crayola, along with other companies, makes special markers for kids.  These are completely safe, as they are formulated under the assumption that kids will be marking themselves, and moms will need to wash it off.   These actually work well at making a translucent effect, similar to tattooing. [Photo of female model from back, having color applied with markers] Once it dries, it stays on till washed off. The biggest drawback is the size of the point. Even the bold markers take an excessive amount of time if a lot of body coverage is needed. I've been told that the human body averages 1.8 square meters of skin. That's a lot to cover with markers.

    I have seen wide tip Crayola markers. These could make a stripe a third of an inch wide (8 mm). This is more useful for bodypainting.Also I have seen some markers that are labeled as non-toxic, with tips 12 mm wide. But I have only seen these in Red and Black.

As for utility in Bodypainting, these markers have okay staying power. Primary advantage is that they can't peel off as paints can, and also won't pull or wrinkle when the skin stretches. They wash off very easy, but also will smear if they get to moist from water or sweat and are rubbed.

    Sakura makes some interesting 1" wide tip markers. These are watercolor, non-toxic markers. They stay on the skin fairly well until washed off. The most interesting colors are a metallic silver and a gold. These look good, and might be very useful for creating stripes and large areas metallic, but probably not practical for total coverage.

Airbrush Make Up

    This is probably the best, for safety, flexibility, and speed. Although more expensive than the airbrush acrylics mentioned below, this is a better way to go as airbrush textile acrylics, tend to crack and peel at high flexion points. Two artists airbrush a male model to create a stone gargoyle look.] If you are working for a commercial client, doing a photo shoot, then these are what you want to use.

     A long time manufacturer is Kryolan. High quality makeup from germany.

    Dinair is another popular brand of Airbrush Makeup. They specialize in it, and also make standard skin colors Their focus seems to be more traditional glamour makeup, using airbrush technique.

     Mehron has announced a of airbrush color. I've not had great success with Mehron in the past. The price is good, but I find it flakes and powders off easily when dry.

    You may also want to experiment with Kryolan's  Brandel color sprays in small cans.  Unlike other hair colors, these lay down a solid opaque layer, just like real spray paint. It dries quickly to the touch and is fairly difficult to rub off.  But in soap and water it dissolves quickly.  It appears to be traditional hair spray loaded up with pigment.  It has the same obnoxious fumes as old fashioned air sprays.  I really like their gold and silver sprays, because it is possible to lay down a solid shiny layer.  Black is incredibly messy though. Over spray is a real problem because of the fine aerosol mist these produce.  Use a face mask! Seems to run US$6 to US$7 for a small can. It requires at least 5 cans for total body coverage. You can find them at good theatrical makeup supply stores. Here's one online source I found.

MagicColor  and Mehron Face/Body Paints

    MagicColor is  from Ben Nye, a Hollywood makeup company. These are opaque, but apply thin with a brush, and dry quick. (The main ingredient is alcohol.) They work well with airbrush. 4 ozs. can do whole body coverage. Price is around US$10 for a 4 oz bottle. Most primary colors are available, along with glitter metallic. Warnings are on the label against using red, pink or orange in eye areas. These are good all around makeup grade paints, not cost prohibitive, and with fairly good staying power. The red stains a little on skin, but cleans off easy. It does stay tacky for awhile, so you may want to apply setting powder.

    Mehron's line of Liquid Makeup is a little cheaper, and available in larger pint sizes for about US$13. So far I've only used the yellow, which seems to go on thin, and the red. It doesn't seem as flexible as the MagicColor. But I need to try more colors.

Airbrush Textile Acrylics

    These are a great balance between low cost and utility. I learned about them from a model, who had used them before. I was nervous about using something that wasn't specifically formulated for application on skin.  Yet she said she had used them with no ill effects and they are marked as non-toxic.  They are actually designed for airbrushing on Fabrics.   They dry quickly and don't rub off easy. Because they are made for textiles their flexibility is superior to other paints. Yet they still wash off easily in soap and water. They also work well when applied by regular bristle brush.

  The two brands I've used are Createx and Jurex(photo). Both work well and run about $5 for a 4 oz bottle.  Larger bottles are available, but usually only black and white in most retail outlets.  Createx has an iridescent line of colors that come out quite nice, with a shiny look, as opposed to a matte flat finish. The Jurex colors seem to work better than the Createx when using a bristle brush.  They are available at any good art store that stocks airbrush supplies.

    I use a Pasche airbrush for fine work and a larger production airbrush for large areas. The large sprayer I bought at a hardware store for $20. It works well enough, but I found a smaller one at SearsGroup of six bodypainted models, 4 were painted with larger touch up spray gun. called a touch up gun, which uses a pint size canister.  These larger sprayers are the only way to go when you have to paint a lot of people or lay down an overall basecoat.

    The key to good airbrush make up is to lay down the thinnest opaque coat you can.  Thicker or multiple coats peel and flake more readily.  Thin your paint, the concentration in the bottle is usually too thick and  will get used up too soon. There are good books at the art stores on air brush techniques for obtaining different effects.

AGPC Makeup

I have discovered an airbrush makeup that is safe on skin and that comes off with soap and water...yet has good staying power. You just set it with a talc powder and use a damp sponge afterwards to remove the powder. It's called Airbrush Grade Prosthetic Cosmetic or AGPC.

Model Rob Zverina, painted with AGPC2 at a gallery showing.It's from Michael Davy Film & TV Make Up, in Orlando FL. The only drawback is its expense. Even a four oz bottle is $35. But if you are painting for a long event, or other profesional job or commercial film or video shoot, this is the best. And prices drop if you order large containers. Many colors are available. I was particularly impressed with the white. When sprayed on, the AGPC2 (A more opaque version than the standard AGPC) is opaque with one coat.

The color selection is large, not as large as Createx though, with it's cool iridescent and pearlescent colors that look slick and shiny after drying. But you may be able to get the same effect by mixing silver or gold makeup powders into the paint. They also have UltraViolet reactive Day Glo colors.

It's possible that this makeup could last one to two days, making it ideal for events such as Burning Man. This stuff doesn't sweat or rinse off, both water and soap are required to remove it. So it's perfect for large events or parties.

Liquid Latex

    Liquid Latex has become quite popular in the last couple of years. It has been available as a make-up material for a long time, but now some companies are making it available in several colors, including black and clear, beyond the traditional flesh tone.

    Initially it has been promoted as a way of making instant latex clothing. But it has real potential as body paint. Once it sets, it is much less messy than any other paint. And the setting time is quite quick, ten minutes or so. It also cleans off well, if applied to shaved skin!

    I have been exploring the use of latex as a base for other materials and paints. Some very interesting effects, textures and colors may be achieved. For example, you can mix in metallic powder or sprinkles, such as in this costume seen at Key West in '96. Or you can create dimensional textures with beads or sand. A reptilian texture can be achieved this way, and is quite convincing! Or one can try embedding larger objects, or fabrics. I painted a model at Burning Man 97 with a single coat of latex, and it lasted into the next day! It was finally removed when it started to itch. It is actually easier to remove multiple coats than single coats. Multiple coats form a strong layer, which peels off easily. People usually use sponge brushes to apply it.

   The trouble with Sponge brushes is that they don't leave a perfect smooth surface. I've experimented with using airless sprayers, and thinning the latex slightly with water. This actually works very well. Latex loves to stick to itself so you have to remember to use either transparent makeup setting powder on it, and or latex polish, which the companies that sell the latex also sell. When sprayed this way it looks great, and stays on well if the skin is well cleaned of body oils before application. BUT-- this great looking thin coat is harder to remove quickly than the thicker brushed on coats, which peel off. If the latex is going to be worn for several hours that usually helps--by that time it just rubs off easily.

    Another advantage to latex is that it can serve as a protective barrier between the skin and paints or materials that are not as safe as make-up.


It is possible for someone to have a latex allergy! Test the individual model first before covering large areas!!

    I have had success creating very shiny metallic looks using latex and metallic powders. This differs slightly from the technique of mixing the powder into the latex. Instead, wait till the latex is almost set, but still tacky. Then gently brush on the powder.

    A company on the web that sells Liquid Latex in all colors, including UltraViolet is Deviant.
Deviant sells the ORIGINAL, tried-and-true quality-tested FANTASY LIQUID LATEX. As Jerry Pena describes it, "We have been quality tested and on the market for over 4 years. We have been active with the Burning Man organization (including the Climate Theater/Anon Salon, S.F.), we actively promote the arts communities (including sponsorships in music, theater, movie, video and stills, and we were featured on E! Entertainment ), the sexual communities (including straight, gay, fetish, BDSM, swinger, etc., as indicated on our "demos" webpage), and we actively support and promote out product on both a retail and wholesale level. "

    All in all, Liquid Latex is tricky. It both requires and rewards experimentation.


    Tempera has long been popular as a body paint, because it is very cheap, and very safe. Unfortunately, it looks great wet, but as soon as it dries, it becomes powdery, and flakes off rapidly. Makes a terrible mess. Not Recommended.


(and how to find them!)

    All the paint in the world doesn't help much if you don't have a canvas. So how do you find people who will let you do this to them?

    The easiest way is to just ask them. A good place to start is friends and relatives, people who (we hope) trust you. Girl/Boyfriends, spouses, best friends and so on. You'd be surprised at who will say yes. Show them some pictures of other body paintings to give them an idea of what you want to paint on them. Also, engage and involve them in the design and process.

    A model source that worked well for me in the past were the personals in the local alternative/entertainment weekly. These are usually named something like "Your City Weekly" or "AnyTown Reader". Usually there is a general category for people seeking hiking partners, music jams, and yes, models. But nowadays I would just try first.
    If you're not paying them, which you probably aren't, then they are doing it because they think it might be fun.

Make sure it is fun for them.

I find that many of the people who model, and are amateurs, appreciate that they can pose nude anonymously when you are also painting their faces. It is very hard to recognize people when fully painted and so they can realize a secret fantasy.

    If you are a male painting a female you don't already know, it is good to have another woman on hand, either a friend of yours or the model's, to put her at ease. Usually this isn't necessary for female artists, or a man painting a man, but, if they seem nervous, don't hesitate to offer a "chaperone".
    Don't forget to give the model copies of the photographs you make. Also, if you ever think you might do something else with the pictures, exhibit or publish them, get a Model Release. (Most pro photography stores have model releases.)

    Processing those pictures is another matter. I have found that my local one hour photo will print just about anything. But if you think you might have trouble, go to a professional photo lab. They are familiar with art photography, and have probably seen much more exotic pictures than the ones you are giving them. If you're unsure, ask if they process nude art photos.
    Others report that the big automated labs are best, because the pictures just go through the machines with no one looking at them. Employees at one hour labs and custom labs report that you can almost count on employees making their own pictures for themselves.

    For models who are young, under 21, but look younger, under 18, be prepared to document their age. You may want to see the model's ID. I would not do any nude work with anyone under 18, the current social climate (in America) is too repressed. Even your own children might be risky as subjects.

Where to Buy

   In very large cities, it is possible to find stores that specialize in Theatrical Makeup. Otherwise, costume shops are a good place to start, as are theatre supply stores.
    Airbrush acrylics and airbrushes are sold at art supply stores. There are also airbrush magazines, which are packed with how to articles, and ads for mail order supplies.

    On the web, there is now an excellent site which sells all the major makeup brands directly. Operated by Steve Biggs, it has a wide selection including Kryolan, and lists some of the larger sizes, not just the little 1.5 oz bottles. Prices seem to be quite reasonable.

Safety First!

   I want to stress that before you start a painting with a new model, you should always test the product you are using first on that model. Try a small area, and wait several minutes, to see if there is any type of reaction. This is true even for supposedly safe make-up products.  Every person is different, with varying sensitivities. You are covering a lot, if not all of a person's skin with the makeup -- so a small reaction could be very severe.  I also make sure I am near a shower or hose to quickly wash someone off if they start to have a reaction.
    I've never had a problem, but I would love to hear from anyone who has. (No anecdotal third person reports please!)

    Finally, I want to address the "Goldfinger" myth, for those people who get their medical information from the movies.
        People breathe through their lungs, not their skin. Total coverage of a person's body with paint will not suffocate them.   I'm speaking from personal experience here, so anyone who disagrees should send me some medical references or citations that demonstrate otherwise.

Experiment! Have Fun!

And let me know how your paintings turn out!

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updated 3/2008